Cover photo credit © to iStock/Ozbalci
Cover photo credit © to iStock/Ozbalci

Balbals: the nomadic ancestral monuments of Central Asia

3 minutes to read

Our ancestors haven't left many historical monuments on the territory of modern Kyrgyzstandue to their nomadic lifestyle. They didn't construct the buildings, as they carried everything they needed on the backs of their horses, even their houses (yurtas). Therefore, the balbals have a unique historical value. These cute tombstone statues connect us with the ancestors and show us how life was many centuries ago in the Tian-Shian mountains in Central Asia. There are many places in Kyrgyzstan where you can discover how shamanic nomads wanted to be remembered in the future. 

Picture © Credits to Salkyn Akmatalieva
Picture © Credits to Salkyn Akmatalieva

So, what is a balbal? 

Balbals are ancient tombstones that people in Central Asia and Mongolia used for the significant members of their communities. The word 'balbal' comes from a Turkic (not Turkish) word 'baba' which means a 'father' or an 'ancestor'. They come in different sizes: from half a meter to four meters high, and they portray people. Most of the balbals depict men either with a sword or a dish.  Archeologists believe that people engraved swords on a statue if a person was a fighter or a man of power (e.g. the tribe leader). Also, next to the balbal of a fighter, people would leave small stones. The number of stones indicated how many people this person killed during his lifetime. As for a dish, the balbal-makers wanted to make sure that a dead person would not suffer from hunger in his afterlife. 

Picture © Credits to iStock/Elena Odareeva
Picture © Credits to iStock/Elena Odareeva

The history of balbals

Balbals found in the territory of Kyrgyzstan belong to the period between the 6th and the 19th century. In the past, people believed that during the first year, a dead person could still live in the body of a balbal. They kept the balbals in their yurtas for a year. Then, they would put them on the grave. These little ancestral monuments would remind them of where the graves of their beloved were, in case they moved away, as nomads of the past often did. All balbals look towards the east because their creators were shamans that worshiped the sky. A new day is born on the east, from where the sun comes to the world every day, giving people warmth and light. 

Picture © Credits to Salkyn Akmatalieva
Picture © Credits to Salkyn Akmatalieva

The best balbal destinations

You can find the balbals all around Kyrgyzstan. But the State Historical Museum in the capital city, Bishkek, has the finest collection of balbals from different historical periods. A trip to the historical museum can be pleasurable to anyone who wants to learn about the history of Kyrgyzstan. However, if you prefer to see balbals in their natural habitat, I recommend taking a one-hour trip away from Bishkek to the Burana Tower. Besides seeing a tower from the 12th century, you can explore a wide variety of balbals from different periods, and in various shapes and sizes. The most interesting thing about the balbals are the facial expressions of people portrayed in the statues. Despite being a very minimalistic form of art, balbals's facial expressions are very rich. 

Burana Tower
Burana Tower
Chui, Kirghizistan
The State Historical Museum, Bishkek
The State Historical Museum, Bishkek
просп. Чуй, Бишкек, Киргизия

It doesn't matter if you are a history nerd or just have a genuine interest in Kyrgyzstan, as it is not important if you are a local or a foreigner, religious or atheist. What matter is that the balbals can fascinate anyone who has ever wondered about after-death life. They demonstrate people's long history of accepting death as a part of life. These nomadic ancestral monuments of Central Asia show us how differently people mourned the dead in the past, but how similar we are in our desire to preserve the memory of our beloved ones for future generations. 


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The author

Gulzat Matisakova

Gulzat Matisakova

Hello. I am Gulzat, from Kyrgyzstan. I studied documentary filmmaking in Europe. In my free time I enjoy watching films and hiking. I am here to guide you through the treasures of Kyrgyzstan.

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